UNM just barely cracked the top-25 this week after wins over UNLV on the road and then-ranked #6 SDSU in The Pit. Both wins were impressive and highlight the characteristics that makes the Lobos such an interesting and dangerous team. So what were the keys to UNM's victories? I think it can be attributed to three main factors: (1) improved defense; (2) more consistency from role players; and (3) developing chemistry among the team.
In UNM's revenge win against the Rebels, New Mexico limited UNLV to 31.7% shooting for 56 points. That's pretty good for a team that normally averages 71.3 points per game from 43.8% shooting. Key, I think, is that the Lobos only gave up three 3-pointers. When the Rebels beat the Lobos in Albuquerque UNLV hit seven threes.
With good defense comes good position, and even though two Rebels had double-digit boards, the Lobos outrebounded UNLV 44-39. And don't forget that UNLV is the 13th best rebounding team in the country. What's more is that it wasn't from an individual herculean effort; all five Lobo starters had at least six rebounds (Williams and Greenwood had seven).
The theme was similar Saturday night against SDSU. The Lobos held the Aztecs to a paltry 44 points from 32.3% shooting (their worst field-goal effort of the season) and only gave up two 3-pointers. Leading scorer Xavier Thames shot 3-of-15 from the floor for just seven points, thanks in large part to Hugh Greenwood's stellar defensive effort.
Not only was UNM's defense tough, it was calculated. SDSU has been so effective at attacking the basket that it's averaged 27 free throws a game and the Aztecs usually make more free throws than their opponents take. Saturday night the Aztecs only got to the line three times and missed them all (UNM went 4-6 from the line).
"You've got to give them some credit, the way they played defensively," Thames graciously admitted. "We've got to do a better job of getting to the basket and getting fouled. We've got to find a way to get into the paint."
It was only last year that New Mexico was considered a defense first team so it shouldn't be a huge surprise that their defense is good. Coach Craig Neal has always insisted that UNM's defense is good. "I don't know what you guys watch or what you guys are thinking sometimes when you talk about our defense," Neal said. "We've held the last nine teams under their average. So if that's bad defense, then that's bad defense, but our defense was terrific tonight."
I think what Neal is referring to is some websites' adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. But even in that department the Lobos improved dramatically. According to teamrankings.com the Lobos have jumped from 143rd to 106th from this time last week.
Consistency From Role Players
Early in the season it was all about the "Big Three," referring to Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow, and Kendall Williams. These guys are still the core of the team, but players outside of the "Big Three" have been chipping in more and more. In fact, Kirk's production has taken a hit after returning from his leg injury forcing the Lobos to look for scoring in other areas.
Kirk had eight points and six rebounds against UNLV. Bairstow, and especially Williams, carried the load that night, scoring 18 and 29 respectively. Greenwood added another four points and Deshawn Delaney, Cullen Neal, and Merv Lindsay each had three points.
But it's not all about scoring. Greenwood, always a calming force for the Lobos, pulled down seven boards, dished out four dimes and had one steal all while committing zero turnovers. Delaney added six rebounds in 25 minutes of playing time. Lindsay played 22 minutes and had three boards and two assists. It seems that Coach Neal is starting to trust Lindsay more and more (just as he seems to distrust Nick Banyard more and more), which is hopeful. Lindsay plays with a lot of enthusiasm, is super athletic, and has a ton of potential. Cullen is an instant spark on offense. Some complain that he is reckless, but his level of abandon is equal to his ability. At any rate, he always seems to hit a three at the right time.
Against SDSU it was again Bairstow and Williams that put points on the board. However, Cullen added eight points, including two three pointers. Kirk only scored six points but he had nine boards and five blocks. Greenwood shot a perfect 3-3 to go for six points, but as usual, he stuffed the sheet adding five boards, four assists, a steal, and a block. Delaney was also perfect on 1-1 shooting to score two, but he had huge hustle plays resulting in four assists and three steals.
The assists really help. New Mexico assisted on 15 shots compared to SDSU's four on Saturday night. Even though he has a had a couple of unremarkable games, Cleveland Thomas is a great guy to have on your bench. Thomas hit two threes against Nevada and showed that he can hit clutch free throws in an overtime win against Wyoming.
It's okay if these guys don't post huge numbers. It is the little things that can help facilitate guys like Bairstow and Williams to be more effective, not to mention take some of the pressure off of Williams who often has to defend the best guard and handle the ball. Same goes for Greenwood. If his supporter role is eased a bit, it might allow him to shoot more, something Coach Neal has encouraged.
I suppose that most chemistry develops, but the way I see it the Lobos' is growing stronger. This factor is less tangible than those above but it is just as important. To watch this team play together is sort of special. They exhibit a good natured camaraderie that I don't see in a lot of teams. I think a lot of that comes from having veteran players like Williams and Greenwood present. You can tell that the players look up to and listen to Williams, and when Williams hits one of his textbook daggers the bench erupts with cheers and smiles.
The other thing that helps is Coach Neal. Neal has always been a players' coach and has seemed to handle the transition to head coach quite well. I get the impression that Neal expects a level of decorum from his players while at the same time running a meritocratic ship. If a player demonstrates his commitment to the team and plays with spirit Neal will reward him, as evidenced by Lindsay.
I know "culture" is often used to describe a team with good cohesion, but there is an added civility to the Lobos that goes a step beyond culture. I follow all of the players on Twitter and rarely do I see negative messages. Even among other teams' players the Lobo guys show respect. Many of the players wished Wyoming forward Larry Nance, Jr. a speedy recovery after his ACL injury.
This may come across as homerism to some, and it is to a degree. Nevertheless, I contend that the mutual respect shown by the players adds a competitive element. After all, basketball is a game meant to be enjoyed and when the team is happy it improves the experience, thus the quality.
Coach Neal acknowledged as much after Saturday's win over SDSU. "I’ve never been around 14 guys who have really bought into what a new coaching staff is trying to do, what a new coach is trying to do, believing in us, believing in our game plans. It’s been coming, and I knew it was coming."
In any event, all of these factors will be tested as the Lobos look to finish conference play on a high note. The Lobos host a struggling but determined Utah State team Tuesday. Next up is a game against Nevada in Reno. Then the Lobos come home to take on Air Force. It's not an easy stretch, but the Lobos should take care of business.
That leaves the last game of the season. The Lobos will head to Viejas Arena to face conference rival SDSU, now ranked 13th. If both teams perform as expected this game will decide the regular season MWC champion. If this was a sports movie I would call it thematic, but it somehow seems fitting this season.
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